The Difficulty of Dignity

IMG_3777On October 23, a week before leaving for Hungary, I will lead a philosophy roundtable at Columbia Secondary School on the topic of human dignity. Our texts will be Robert Hayden’s poem “Those Winter Sundays,” Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s speech “Solitude of Self,” and a short excerpt from Immanuel Kant’s Fundamental Principles of the Metaphysic of Morals. This excerpt begins, “In the kingdom of ends everything has either value or dignity. Whatever has a value can be replaced by something else which is equivalent; whatever, on the other hand, is above all value, and therefore admits of no equivalent, has a dignity.” That strikes me as a good starting point.

At these philosophy roundtables, the discussion takes surprising directions; while I prepare in advance, I do not know what to expect. I am fairly sure, though, that we will spend some time discussing the difficulty of dignity. That’s an inexhaustible topic, so it will not hurt if I lay out a few thoughts here.

It’s easy, when speaking of dignity, to point to egregious violations, such as those we see in the current U.S. presidency. It’s important to call out the egregious and to separate oneself from it (“I deplore this; this is not me”). But take away those extremes, and no one has mastered dignity. Everyone has difficulty with it; each of us fails in some way to perceive and honor others.

If dignity consists in that which is beyond all value and cannot be replaced, then we ignore or harm dignity when treating each other as dispensable or replaceable. Now, we all have aspects that are replaceable; that’s a different matter. If I leave a job, and someone takes over my responsibilities, that person has replaced that aspect of me that fulfilled those responsibilities. Still the person has not replaced me as a whole; I, like the new person, am irreplaceable. Not only did I bring something unique to the work, but I exist beyond it, as does any worker. Also, we often have qualities that we wish to slough off; those qualities do not deserve special honor.

How do we treat others–that is, entire people–as dispensable and replaceable? One common method is gossip. (That doesn’t happen to be my weakness–I gossip “hardly ever“–but don’t worry, I have plenty of other foibles.) Gossip, especially vicious gossip, creates an in-group and an outcast; the outcast has no say, and the gossipers assume that their own words have more status anyway. Also, gossip takes one aspect of a person–one mistake, one unpleasant quality–and treats it as the whole. Now, there’s gossip and gossip; some gossip is on the gentler side, but all the same, it takes advantage of the person’s absence.

But you do not have to be a gossiper (or slanderer, or libeler) to have difficulty with dignity. There are many other ways! For instance, if you try too hard to befriend people who don’t reciprocate, you risk ignoring or damaging their dignity; you assume that your own wishes are worth more than theirs (or that you know what’s good for them). On the other hand, if you shut people out unreasonably, if you push away people who show goodwill and kindness, you are reducing and tossing their gestures and sometimes, with that, their very selves.

If you chronically show up late for appointments and dates, you are rattling others’ dignity by making your day more important than theirs. But sometimes there’s dignity, or at least courtesy, in slight lateness (for instance, when arriving for dinner); it gives your hosts a little more time to prepare and relaxes the expectations. Etiquette has dignity bound up in it, but etiquette taken too far becomes judgmental and self-serving.

Online communications can affect dignity in all sorts of ways; a too-long email can overwhelm, whereas a short text message, in certain contexts, can reduce or erase conversation. Twitter seems to have a built-in indignity; it’s set up for eruptions of semi-thought. Brevity itself isn’t the culprit; it’s a certain kind of brevity, a dismissive kind, that runs rampant online.

Why is dignity so difficult? There are numerous possibilities; one is that we live inside our own minds and do not know what it’s like to be someone else. Everything we do, think, or feel is from our own perspective; while we can experience empathy, it’s essentially an act of imagination. Because of this, it is all too easy to treat others as slightly less real than we are. There’s supreme difficulty in seeing others.

Then there are the limits of a day and a life; there’s only so much we can take in, only so much room we can make for others. People reasonably set up their lives with concentric and sometimes overlapping circles; they have their inner circle and then successive outer rings. Distance can have dignity too–there’s dignity in strangers and privacy–but it’s all too easy to diminish distant people, to treat them as existentially less important.

Is there hope, then? Yes; first of all, dignity is inherent in us and cannot be given or taken away. It can be recognized or ignored, strengthened or damaged, but it stays. (I recognize that some dispute this, but I hold to it for now.) Second, there are thousands of ways of moving closer to it. Just as it can be bruised, so it can be healed. Treating others as beyond all value–that’s the work of a lifetime, but it’s possible,  thought by thought, gesture by gesture, mistake by mistake, repair by repair.

 

I took the photo in Albertirsa, Hungary. You can’t really see the grapes (except for one cluster), but they are there. When I looked at this little vineyard (in person), at first I saw no grapes at all. But then I started noticing one cluster after another.

For an extraordinary investigation of human dignity, see George Kateb’s book on the subject.

Radical Patience

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Urban life seems to tell us that only fools show patience. If you’re waiting in line, and the people in front of you are just dawdling, then it’s on you to urge them to move along. Or if you apply for a job and hear nothing for several months, there’s no virtue in staying silent; unless you make an inquiry, you may find yourself waiting indefinitely. It seems that the people who accomplish things are those who take existence by the horns and shake it up. It is those movers and shakers–legs in the air, hands gripping the Toro–who actually matter, or so it seems.

Celebrity lore perpetuates this idea. Famous people get huge book deals, and their books get *everyone* talking. Famous people make hugely influential films about social issues. Famous people influence election outcomes, for better or for worse. Whenever these take a bite from a celery stalk, they send a tremor through the press. According to these exemplars, any worthy accomplishment in life comes loudly, with grand echoes; if your work lacks such dramatic response, it basically doesn’t exist.

But this celebrity model distorts things. Many accomplishments such as writing require not only persistence and “grit” but a subdued quality known as patience. The right kind of patience is far from foolish; taking time with things, letting them unfold, you come closer to understanding their nature. Patience allows for sorting and recombination; it puts immediate passions in perspective.

In this sense, patience does radical work. It rips a person away from immediate reactions and demands, away from the distortions of glitz and fame, into a perception of things that matter. It has dangers, of course, especially when combined with wishful thinking; a person can wait and wait for nothing at all. It needs the mediation of good judgment.

Working on my book, I needed more patience than I first expected. I initially thought it would get snatched up by an agent–or rather, I thought this was expected of me. People were surprised to hear that I would devote a year to writing when I didn’t even have a publisher, so I thought, “I’ll have one soon.” It takes time to find one; not only that, but there’s something to be said for the time involved. It allows for serious thinking and revision along the way.

It is too soon for me to say anything definite, since I don’t have anything definite–but in terms of publication, I see some light ahead. Whether or not this light is for me, I don’t know. But the book will make its way into print, and the time will have helped it. I don’t think it would be where it is now if someone had seized it right away.

Too much waiting does no one any good; it can turn into sloth or procrastination. But I am not talking about either of those things; while waiting, I have been working on the book and doing many other things.

How, then, does patience differ from grit? With grit, you are the one in control; with patience, not so. Patience is essentially passive (as its root suggests); this quality doesn’t get much respect in our “go for it” culture. But certain kinds of passivity make room for good; moreover, passivity and activity often combine. Patience does not equal a long nap or, at the other end of things, a long scream. It’s somewhere in the background, but not too far; while letting things happen, it stays alert and taut. It exists only alongside impatience; there is a time for waiting and a time for saying “enough.” When to do which? To choose between the two, one must be capable of both; the bold word holds hours of holding back.

 

I took the photo in Albertirsa, Hungary.  “Pékség” means “bakery,” and baking, in many situations, requires patience. (Then again, it can also be done in a rush.)

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.

 

Opening the Gates

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A piyut by R. Shlomo Ibn Gabirol (Spain, 11th century) begins, “Sha’ar asher nisgar, kuma petahehu….” (“The gate that is shut, get up and open it…”). Here is a beautiful performance. Filled with echoes of the Song of Songs, the piyut expresses a longing that is both intensely personal and communal, both immediate and bound up in history.

In Hungary, many gates to Jewish history are locked; during the Holocaust, Jewish communities throughout the countryside were destroyed. Many synagogues are now abandoned, and the unanswerable loss hidden away. The synagogue concerts I attended on Sunday and Monday–performed in Albertirsa and Baja by members of the Budapest Festival Orchestra–opened a few gates.

I begin with the ending: in Baja, at the Ady Endre Library, whose building was once the city’s synagogue. After the first piece (the first movement of Brahms’s Sextet, Opus 18), the rabbi (Rabbi Slomó Köves, I believe), who spoke in between the pieces and gave a rousing shofar demonstration, asked someone to open up the ark. It remained open for the rest of the concert and afterward, so we could see the Torah scrolls, siddurim, photographs, hanukkiah, Shabbat candles, tallit, and more. As you can see in the photo above, the musicians performed right in front of the ark. I understood this as a gesture of gratitude and hope. Here is a closer view.

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The Budapest Festival Orchestra inaugurated its synagogue concert series in 2014. This project, initially envisioned by the conductor, Iván Fischer, aims “to fill synagogues that were laid bare by the Holocaust, with life, music and culture once again.” In other words, there is more to this than “just” playing concerts in these spaces; the music and presentations, the gatherings and assemblies, gently transform the people, synagogues, and towns.

This series is one of the orchestra’s many community initiatives. Orchestra members bring concerts to the elderly, the sick, the disabled, pregnant women, disadvantaged children, and people who cannot afford to travel. They give free concerts, open to all, in cities, towns, and villages around Hungary. (On Saturday evening, in Szeged, I attended their wonderful church concert of two Bach cantatas; I will say more about that in another piece. People came from all over the city: on foot, by bike, and by car. One family brought a big Border Collie.) The orchestra hosts an annual “Dancing on the Square” on Heroes’ Square in Budapest; over 500 children of different backgrounds work with teachers for six months to prepare a dance choreography for this celebration.

On the surface, the Albertirsa and Baja concerts had identical programs: the Brahms, Alexander Glazunov’s Rêverie orientale, Jacques Ibert’s Three Short Pieces, and, for the encore, a beautiful melancholic piece, evocative of a Nishmat melody, by a Hungarian Jewish klezmer composer (I will provide both his name and the name of the piece when I learn them). But beyond that, the Albertirsa and Baja concerts differed not only in the architecture and acoustics, not only in the audiences, but in the many layers of present and past. I remember the big echoing sound of Albertirsa and the warm resonance of Baja, but those adjectives say only so much.

I took the train from Szeged to Albertirsa late Sunday morning. Arriving in mid-afternoon, I had some time to wander around and get my bearings. I found my way to the little town square, which has memorial dedicated to the residents of Alberti and Irsa who died in World War II. I sat on a bench there for an hour or two.

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Around 3:30 I saw a stream of people all walking in the same direction: children, elderly people, families. I thought they might be going to the concert, so I followed them. Indeed, that was so. We were all going to the same place.

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I later learned (from Szolongo Szani, the orchestra’s community program coordinator, that when the BFO played at this synagogue in 2015, the building was abandoned and in ruins. It seems that the concert inspired the community to restore and make use off the space, which now serves as a House of Arts (Művészetek Háza). This was a project of spirit and care.

Here’s a view of the inside. I took the photo about twenty minutes before the concert started; by the time it began, the hall was full.

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Each piece in the program had a perfect and memorable ending: the pizzicato of the Brahms, the hush of the Glazunov, the glorious final run of the Ibert, and the encore’s final notes. Those endings stay with me and tug at me. The end of a piece can be a revelation: right then, in those fleeting seconds, you grasp the piece as a whole.

A ending of this kind also seems to say, “Remember and return.” You walk away with something of the piece, and it brings you back to the listening.

After each piece, the audience clapped heartily, in rhythm (a gesture analogous to standing ovations in the U.S.). There was a reciprocity in the room: not only between the audience, musicians, and rabbi, but between past and present. The concert was part instruction, part music for the sake of music; the clarinetist Ákos Ács gave the initial introduction (about the series itself), and the rabbi spoke twice. Since this was all in Hungarian, I missed most of the rabbi’s humor but understood some of the gist: he spoke of the history of the synagogue and of certain Jewish practices (such as the blowing of the shofar). He pointed out where the women once sat and where the Torah scrolls were once kept.

after the concertAfter the concert, there was cake. People stayed and talked outside for a long time. In this photo you can see the cellist Rita Sovány (now one of my favorite cellists) and the violist Barna Juhász. Lingering was part of the spirit o the event; the music was still in our ears, and many of us did not want to leave just yet. We were welcomed to stay.

Afterward I took a leisurely walk back to the train station. I did not even have to ask, “Hol van a pályaudvar?,” which I have had occasion to ask a few times. I remembered my way and had no trouble catching the train. That night I would go back to Budapest–and then, the next morning, head out to Baja.

I have stories to tell about the trip to Baja–for instance, about the delightful little red train I caught in Dombóvár. They will have to wait a little while. When I got there, I fell in love with the townlike city: its leafy park, pastel-colored buildings, and the Stars of David rising up into the sky (from the Ady Endre Library). Here again, I did not have to ask for directions.

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The city and synagogue had a different feel from Albertirsa. The synagogue, which the city purchased from the Jewish community in 1985, bears witness to a thriving past. When converting it to a library, the city restored its many details, including artwork and lettering. When I entered and saw the library staff greeting people warmly, I sensed their pride over this concert. Members of the small local Jewish community were in attendance; during his presentation, the rabbi welcomed comments from people in the audience who knew the synagogue’s history intimately.

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Within its visual splendor, the hall had a warm and subtle feel. At the end of the Glazunov you could hear the sounds so close to silence . The encore (the name of which I will find out) felt like something that happens once in a lifetime, even among hundreds of performances of the same piece. After the concert, as I got up and headed toward the cake, I made eye contact with other audience members; their eyes told me what I would not have been able to understand in words.

I stayed for a little while, took pictures of the ark, and spoke in my bare-beginner’s Hungarian with a library staff member, for whom I recited the first four lines of Ady Endre’s poem “Köszönöm, köszönöm, köszönöm,” which seemed appropriate for this night and week.

Napsugarak zúgása, amit hallok,
Számban nevednek jó íze van,
Szent mennydörgést néz a két szemem,
Istenem, istenem, istenem….

It is the hum of sunbeams that I hear,
Thy name of names is sweet inside my mouth,
And the holy thunder fills my sight,
My God, my God, my God.

(This is my own attempt at a translation; I used Leslie A. Kery’s as a starting point.)

IMG_3833The gates were opened that night, and so were the skies; that night, as I slept in a little inn in Baja, the rain came pouring down. In the morning, before sunrise, I walked back to the train station through glowing streets.

In Hebrew, HaMakom (“the place”) is one of the names of God. These synagogue concerts were not just concerts played in synagogues; the place and the music were part of each other. This is probably always true, but easily forgotten; in some way, music–the creation, playing, and listening–comes out of knowing who and where you are, even as you search your whole life for the answers, the countless answers, to these questions.

 

I made a few edits to this piece after posting it (and a few more later). Also, thanks to Jenny Golub for editing the sixth photo to make it lighter.

Back to the Map

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This coming week I go to Hungary to prepare for the move there in November and to attend several Budapest Festival Orchestra community concerts (one church concert and two synagogue concerts). These combined purposes will take me to five locations in six days: Budapest, Szolnok, Szeged, Albertirsa, and Baja, which you can see above and in Google Maps. My actual train itinerary will be Budapest-Szolnok-Budapest-Szeged-Albertirsa-Budapest-Baja-Budapest. That is, I will be stationed in Budapest but will stay overnight in Szeged and Baja as well. To put this together in my mind, I have been reading about each of the towns.

Each one is near a body of water: Szolnok and Szeged lie on the Tisza; Budapest and Baja, on the Danube. These waterways have much to do with the cities’ histories. Albertirsa is not near a body of water; its first train arrived in 1847.

Szeged was once a Roman trading post (on an island in the Tisza); its castle, a corner of which remains standing, dates back to the thirteenth century or earlier. The name Szeged may derive from the Hungarian szeg, “corner”; the Tisza bends there. The city had a massive flood in 1879; Emperor Franz Josef promised that the rebuilt city would be more beautiful than the old one. Lajos Tisza, who led the effort, fulfilled the emperor’s promise.

Albertirsa, a small town in the middle of the Great Hungarian Plain, existed first as two habitations: Alberti (mentioned by King Ladislaus IV in 1277) and Irsa (mentioned in the chapter of Buda in 1368). It became Albertirsa in 1950. The town has a rich and painful Jewish history. Moritz Goldstein, father of the mezzo-soprano opera singer Róza Csillag (1832-1892), was a hazzan of Irsa; I hope to learn more about him (and her). The synagogue, opened in 1809, has now been renovated and reopened as Művészetek Háza, House of Arts.

Since 2014, for one of its many community initiatives, the Budapest Festival Orchestra has been playing concerts in synagogues around Hungary, to bring music to local communities and to honor the Jewish history of these places. Here’s Fiona Maddocks’s article about the project (The Guardian, December 12, 2016). I intend to write a piece, possibly for this blog, possibly for another publication, after attending next week’s concerts.

The church concert in Szeged, performed by the orchestra’s Baroque ensemble, consists of two Bach cantatas (“Jesu, der du meine Seele,” BWV 78, and “Christus, der ist mein Leben,” BWV 95). The synagogue concerts in Albertirsa and Baja feature Ibert (Trois pièces brèves), Glazunov (Rêverie orientale), and Brahms (String Sextet No. 1, Op.18). I have been listening to recordings of these pieces; here’s a beautiful video of the Israeli Chamber Project performing the Glazunov.

Speaking of synagogues, I will get to attend services at Sim Shalom in Budapest this Friday and Saturday; I look forward to this with full heart.

Almost first of all, I will go to Szolnok, my first destination after Budapest. How exciting to see the school and visit a few classes! The city is just a 90-minute train ride from Budapest; the school, a direct walk from the train station. Szolnok is known as a crossroads, but it holds its own life–not only an annual goulash festival, not only mayflies, not only an airplane museum, not only a rich music culture (from what I gather), but daily life, with its many walks and ways, and strong education.

I was tempted to post a picture or two here (from other sites), but why not wait until I have taken a few on my own? My thoughts right now are preliminary and anticipatory; I don’t know any of these places yet. Next week I will only start to know them. Still, a start is farther along than a pre-start, which is farther along than no hint of a start at all. Instead of a photo, I’ll post Pál Vágó’s painting of the 1879 flood.

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Image credits: (1) Google Maps; (2) Pál Vágó, painting of Szeged flood of 1879 (Ferenc Mora Museum; image courtesy of the wonderful blog Europe Between East and West).

Update: The concert schedule has changed since my original post: the September 10 synagogue concert will be in Albertirsa, not Balatonfüred. I have changed the map and post accordingly.